December 10, 2013

Michael Clarke's reverse polarity and other mysteries

Also, conclusive proof that Alan Mulally was the equal of Don Bradman as a batsman

Terrier in mud sauce? Yum © Getty Images

Much has been written about England's failings in Brisbane and Adelaide. Understandably, and justifiably. For a team that, in the second Test, contained eight players with at least 49 Test caps and more than five years of experience each, including three batsmen with more than 20 hundreds, one of their finest wicketkeeper-batsmen of all time, and four bowlers with over 150 wickets each - they were mind-bendingly brittle and almost heroically error-prone. Seldom can a team of such standing have capitulated so completely.

Australia have played glorious cricket, been brilliant, tactically precise, passionate to an occasionally verbal fault, fearlessly and unceasingly aggressive, remarkably so for a team that had lost seven of its nine previous Tests. They picked at but never completely opened England's weaknesses last summer. This series, they have torn them asunder like a lion accidentally booked to perform stomach surgery on a particularly irritating zebra. They have by turns attacked, probed at, intimidated and squeezed England's mathematically impressive but now serially inconsistent batting line-up. They have dismantled England's key player, Graeme Swann, with bat and ball, and blunted their long-time spearhead, Anderson. All the pillars of England's recent successes have been hacked to pieces.

Given all this, it has been an unquestionable error for England to assist their greatest rivals with a Christmas catalogue of bargain-basement fielding bloopers, and a quality of shot selection and execution that called to mind a contestant on a TV cookery competition presenting the judge with a dish of his own pet dog, undercooked whole and served in an ill-conceived methylated spirits-and-mud coulis.

If England can somehow emerge, bleary-eyed, from this rubble, dust themselves off, rebuild something approximating to what had stood there previously, and escape with a drawn series, it will be one of their greatest cricketing achievements. If they can win, it may well be a sign of the second coming of one or more of Jesus, Elvis and WG Grace.

Rather than dwelling on England's much-analysed failings, here are some thoughts on three aspects of Australia's high-risk, high-reward brilliance.

1. Mitchell Johnson bowling out Alastair Cook in the first innings
Johnson's high-octane, stump-clonking 0.4-second new-ball masterpiece was viewed by many as a sign of the England captain's mental fatigue, worn down by the current and cumulative pressures of captaincy. The speed of the delivery was noted, but many seemed to consider it a simple straight delivery, and perceived indeterminate footwork, a closing bat face, and a fractionally tardy reaction speed.

Personally, I thought the ball was as close to unplayable as cricket balls can get, particularly at that early stage of an innings. I have discussed this at greater length in the latest ZaltZone video piece, in the research phase for which I communed once again with Statsguru, and did some numerical archaeology that revealed quite how difficult it is to bowl Cook out.

Before Johnson sizzled his sticks, Cook had only been bowled 12 times in his Test career, out of 165 dismissals. Nine of those 12 were played on off the inside edge. Only three times in almost 17000 balls faced had Cook been bowled without playing on, and two of those were after he had scored centuries (bowled via the pad by Ojha in Ahmedabad last year, after more than nine hours at the crease; and skittled by Sami for 105 at Lord's in 2006). Only once previously, in 99 matches, had he been clean-bowled for less than 100 - when Mohammad Amir plucked out his poles at Edgbaston in 2010. It was a truly extraordinary record of stump protection.

Those 12 timber rearrangements constitute 7.3% of his 165 dismissals. By comparison, 21.4% of all Test dismissals have been bowled out. And, counting only his direct peers and contemporaries, during the span of Cook's career since 2006, other top-three batsmen collectively have been bowled out in 16% of their completed innings. Cook had been bowled, on average, once every 1400 balls faced; other top three players of his era collectively have been bowled out once every 464 balls faced, making Cook almost exactly three times less likely to be bowled out than other batsmen in the same job as him.

(Further comparisons with other batting legends are also instructive. Some selected Percentages of Innings Ended By Stump-Splattering: Atherton: 15%; Gavaskar 16%; Boycott and Gooch: 17%; Tendulkar 18%; Kallis 19%; Dravid 21%; Hutton and Hobbs 25%. Hammond 30%. Bradman 32%. Chris Martin 52%. The great willow-wielding tail-end leviathan Alan Mullally 21%.)

(Hang on, does that mean that Donald Bradman was 50% easier to bowl out than Alan Mullally? Yes, it must do. Therefore, Mullally was a better batsman than Bradman. That is a fact.)

(On reflection, that is not a fact. It is a lie. I concede that runs scored before being bowled out need to factored in. Bradman beats Mullally on this count. Let us call it one-all. And conclude that Donald Bradman and Alan Mullally were equally good batsmen.)

(Thanks be to stats.)

Whilst, in his current form, it does not always take something special to get Cook out, if you ever manage to clean-bowl him, you have probably sent down something fairly decent. Regardless of whether or not he has just spent ten hours fielding and is presiding over what may be the disintegration of one of England's finest modern teams.

2. Michael Clarke's first-innings 148
Clarke's dominance-confirming century, full of craft and calculation, (a) confirmed and (b) contradicted a curious pair of oddly clashing statistics. This was his 21st first-innings hundred, out of the 26 he has scored in Tests. Overall, as illustrated in Adelaide, he is something of a first-innings specialist - he now averages 58 in first innings, and 43 in his second. However, there is a quirk. Against England, despite his Adelaide hundred (and his 187 at Old Trafford), he averages a relatively pedestrian 36.1 in first innings, but a sub-Bradmanesque 70.2 in second innings - in fact, only the Don and Kenny Barrington surpass him in Anglo-Baggygreen second-innings history.

However, against all other countries collectively, these figures are almost precisely inverted - he averages 67.2 in the first innings of Tests against non-English opponents, and just 34.1 in the second.

Are we to assume that, against opponents other than England, Clarke approaches opposition batsmen, and rather than advising them to prepare for a broken arm, cordially invites them to "get ready for a lovely massage and some aromatherapy"?

What on earth is the meaning of this? Does Clarke have his polarity reversed before Ashes matches? Are we to assume that, against opponents other than England, he approaches opposition batsmen, and rather than advising them to prepare for a broken arm, cordially invites them to "get ready for a lovely massage and some aromatherapy"?

Beginning with the decisive Oval Test of 2009, Clarke had had 11 first-innings failures in 12 Ashes Tests (his Old Trafford 187 being the exception; his next-highest first-innings score was 28, and he was out in single figures nine times). In 2010-11, England annihilated Australia's current and future captains - between them, Ponting and Clarke scored 71 runs in their nine first innings. Last summer, in his first full Ashes as skipper, Clarke managed just 51 runs in the first three innings of the series, by which time England were miles ahead at Lord's and the urn was all but lost. He has scored two match-shaping hundreds since. He has discomforted Swann with constant pressure - scoring off 51 of the 106 balls the English spinner has tweaked to him in the series so far. He is the only current Australian player with more than four Test hundreds. For all Johnson's series-defining fireworks, and the persistence of his bowling attack as a whole, another Ashes failure for Clarke could have resulted in a very different series than the one that has developed in such spectacular fashion in the past three weeks.

(More on this in a future blog, when I will attempt to concoct a First-Innings Fizzers XI to take on a Second-Dib Demons team. First name on the latter team sheet - Andy Caddick. He averaged 37 with the ball in the first innings of Tests - slightly worse than Nuwan Zoysa, Venkatesh Prasad and Ravi Rampaul have done, and the 92nd-best average of the top 100 Test first-innings wicket-takers.

In the ten-minute break between innings, however, Caddick seemed to disappear into his own personal phone box, spin round at incredible speed, and emerge wearing a special cape and with his jockstrap outside his trousers. He averaged 20.8 in second innings - the tenth-best average of the 100 leading second-innings wicket-takers, slightly ahead of Glenn McGrath, Richard Hadlee and Fred Trueman, and trudging back to the pavilion to the sound of a legion of swooning Lois Lanes.

3. Stopping Swann's Southpaw Stranglehold
David Warner has scored 88 unbeaten runs from the 124 balls Graeme Swann has bowled to him in this series so far. After his nine-wicket contribution to England's Lord's triumph, Swann has had little success against right-handers, but has continued his dominance of top-order lefties Rogers and the now selectorially absent Khawaja. However, the three other left-handers he has bowled to - Warner, Starc and Johnson, all aggressive hitters - have attacked him consistently and successfully.

Collectively, they have scored 231 runs for three dismissals off 55 Swann overs since Lord's (where none of them was playing), scoring at 4.2 per over, reaching or clearing the ropes on average once every 11 balls. Thus far, through bold strokeplay, as well as, in Warner's case, bold footwork, Australia have even neutered Swann's previously almost unbreakable hold over left-hand batsmen - he had averaged a little over 20, taking a wicket every eight overs, with an economy rate of 2.5. Another one of those England pillars has been successfully crash-tackled to the floor.

Can Swann respond? There are only three left-handers in the Australian team, two of them are openers, and one of those two has played him almost perfectly. Everywhere England look, there are mighty challenges. Perth will be fascinating. As Perth usually is.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer